In March of 2019, Unicode, the organization responsible for standardizing the representation of text and emojis in modern software products for brands like Apple, released a set of emojis designed to be inclusive. There were motorized wheelchairs, service dogs, and every possible combination (36 in total) of a couple holding hands, with six shades of skin tones to choose from. And then, in the same release, came a collection of new emojis just for fun: a flamingo, a yoyo, an otter, a chair, a pair of pink ballet slippers.
For ballet lovers, it was a welcome arrival, confirming that their sport was worthy of the symbolic treatment enjoyed by baseball, football, and tennis in the world of emoji. Like ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs, emojis offer a window into the civilization that birthed them. Misty Copeland, arguably the world’s most well-known ballet dancer, recalls her excitement at the emoji’s debut.
“It was nice to have some acknowledgment and recognition from the broader world that we’re here and that we’ve been here for hundreds of years, changing so many lives. It was super exciting when the ballet slipper emoji came out,” she tells Vogue. “But about two years ago, that’s when I thought, okay, but ballet is more than a pink pointe shoe.”
Last September, Copeland took to her Instagram account to post a video announcing her petition, called “Make a Pointe,” to encourage Apple and Unicode to release more shades of the slipper. And no, it’s not lost on Copeland, the first-ever Black principal dancer at New York’s American Ballet Theatre, that without a bit of background on and knowledge of ballet history, her campaign may seem less than urgent.
“I’ve seen the comments, and people that just don’t get it,” she says. “And I feel like, well, This is not for you. Maybe that’s why you don’t understand it.”
While the shoe is a piece of sartorial equipment worn by virtually all ballerinas, its classic color of “European Pink” has everything to do with the skin tones of the very first ballerinas in 18th-century Italy and France, who wore pale pink tights and pale pink slippers. The ballet tutu exposed the leg, which was sheathed in a tight that tapered seamlessly into a pointe slipper—creating one of those sinuous, unbroken lines so prized in ballet.
For those dancers with darker skin tones, however, the pale pink pointe shoe creates color blocks that fragment the figure. Up until a few years ago, these dancers—Copeland among them—used makeup to darken their satin slippers, in a practice called pancaking. Diversely colored ballet slippers, from classic purveyors like Gaynor Minden, Freed, and Capezio, only arrived around 2020. Copeland played a large role in this development, and now, she’s calling for emoji to imitate life.
Vogue: You’re so focused on representation within ballet, and you’ve worked to ensure that dancers of all backgrounds can see themselves in the art. You’ve also brought about a lot of “firsts” within the dance world. Do you recall the first time you saw a brown ballet slipper? Do you remember what that feeling was like?
Misty Copeland: I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this question! Or even thought about it. The very first time that I ever pancaked my pointe shoes was around the time that I was performing with Debbie Allen Dance Academy. I must have been 14 years old, and it wasn’t something that was a part of the culture at my [prior] ballet school. I was probably one of—I don’t know—two or three black people at that school, but my teacher was very conscious of it all, which is why she connected me with Debbie Allen. I pancaked my pointe shoes for the first time for her Hot Chocolate Nutcracker performance. For those performances, I saw brown pointe shoes for the first time. It just opened my mind and my eyes to an even bigger world of possibilities as to what a ballerina could look like. It’s how every dancer should be able to feel—that sense of belonging.
Can you explain how the traditional color “European Pink” exclude some dancers, and prevent them from feeling as though they have a place within the art?
From far away, under the stage lights, people that have fair skin all look uniform, with a pale pink tight and a pale pink pointe shoe. No one has pink skin, but the origin of why pink was chosen as the uniform was because the pink ballet slipper was made for white European people. That’s not to say it’s wrong or right; that’s where ballet originated, that’s where it was created, and that’s what the people looked like there. But it’s an American art form now, too, and I think that the colors should be open for everyone to feel like they can be a part of it and really feel represented. And I feel the same way about the emojis.
As a fan of ballet, I remember feeling like I was being “seen” by the world of emojis when we got the ballet slipper in 2019. I’m interested in how you, as someone who has dedicated your life to ballet, experienced that, and at what point did you realize that OK, this is great, but we need more shades?
Everything has to kind of happen in stages. I think back to when I was signed to Under Armour and what a big deal it was for a dancer to be considered an athlete and put on the same level as professional basketball players, football players, golf, tennis—that was a huge step. But we should also be thinking bigger than that. As for the ballet slipper emoji, I would say that maybe two years ago I really started to think, OK, but ballet is more than a pink pointe shoe. It wasn’t until late last year that I realized I really wanted to do something that was going to push this forward.
Did you know it would be a petition? How did you decide where to begin?
I had no idea what that would look like. It was having conversations with my team, doing research, and figuring out how these things work. It just made sense to start with a petition to show that people do want this change and that it’s not just crazy Misty who’s always pushing for more inclusivity in ballet. There are so many people who want to feel seen and heard and see more of a diverse representation.
Have Apple or Unicode responded to you? Are you satisfied with the response?
I think we’re headed in the right direction. I’m not satisfied it’s done yet. We’ve got a lot of people to sign the petition, but we filled out the proper paperwork [with Apple and Unicode], and it does take time. We’ve gone through the proper channels and we’re waiting for the request to be evaluated and for the powers that be to make that decision. I know that it just takes time, but we’re continuing to make noise where we can and to show that this is about more than an emoji—this goes deeper.
You were just on CNN, and you’re so active on social media. Do you have any other PR plans to help raise awareness for your Make a Pointe petition?
Nope! Just social media. It’s really the best way to get things out these days and just share information. And again, I think if we give people more context and history, then they’ll understand. For young people who are exposed to social media, it’s where they live, it’s their language. Emojis are like representations of them and their voice, and they just want to see themselves reflected and represented in those spaces.
In an ideal world, how many shades of ballet slippers emojis would there be?
I think that there should definitely be more than three, because that seems to be the standard whenever anyone’s starting out with more diverse skin tone shades. It seems to be dark, medium, and light-brown.
Is there anything else you want to add about Make a Pointe?
Please go sign the petition!
This conversation has been edited.
This article was originally published on Vogue.com.
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